America will get treated to yet another dark comedy about the Mafia this Friday, when The Family opens. It stars Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, the blonde cheerleader from Glee, and some other kid. This is certainly not the first foray into comedy for DeNiro, who these days alternates his dramatic roles with more light-hearted fare. But up until about the early ’90s, and with very few exceptions, you knew that when you went to see a Robert DeNiro film you were in for some serious business. But now we have three Fockers movies that we can’t get rid of, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Here, then, are seven other serious actors who were primarily known for their dramatic chops before deciding to lighten up.
#1. Leslie Nielsen
I would bet money that most people in my generation or younger have never even seen a Leslie Nielsen movie from before his 1980s comedy renaissance. For more than two decades Nielsen built up a solid legacy of dramatic roles, and was perhaps best known for his starring role in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. But it was his comedic turn as the hilariously deadpan Dr. Rumack in 1980’s Airplane! that introduced him to a whole new audience and basically gave him a brand new career. With the subsequent Police Squad! TV series and Naked Gun film series, Nielsen’s status as a comedic powerhouse was cemented for all-time.
#2. Lloyd Bridges
Since we’re talking about Airplane!, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lloyd Bridges’ superb role as airline control tower supervisor Steve McCroskey, who spends the film regretting his decision to kick a number of drug habits. Bridges subsequently made notable comedy appearances in Airplane II, Cousins, Joe Versus the Volcano, and Hot Shots! His last great comedic part was as the slightly delusional and geriatric physical trainer Izzy Mandelbaum in Seinfeld.
#3. William Shatner
Hear me out on this one. While a lot of people do in fact laugh at Shatner’s scenery chewing as Capt. James T. Kirk in Star Trek, he at least seemed to be taking things seriously. That started to change in the late ’90s, both with his guest role as Big Giant Head on the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and then in a series of delightfully surreal commercials for Priceline where he mocked his ill-fated attempt at a singing career in the ’60s. That earned him his most memorable role of recent years as the batshit crazy attorney Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal.
#4. Charlie Sheen
Before the bizarre days of Tiger Blood and “Winning!” Charlie Sheen was one of Hollywood’s most promising dramatic talents. Notable roles in Red Dawn (the good one), Platoon, and Wall Street made him a star by the time he was barely of legal drinking age. Aside from a brief cameo in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sheen’s comedy coming out was as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in 1989’s Major League. Since the early ’90s, most of Sheen’s most successful work has been comedic. And then of course there was his eight-season run as Charlie Harper on the CBS mega-hit comedy Two and a Half Men.
#5. Alec Baldwin
When he’s not getting very angry at people in real life, Alec Baldwin spends most of his time in front of the camera being pretty damn funny these days. The man who delivered what may be the most witheringly nasty monologue in film history just completed a brilliant seven-season run on 30 Rock as vain network executive Jack Donaghy, and currently holds the record for most times hosting Saturday Night Live (16).
#6. John C. Reilly
Reilly burst on the scene with a fantastic performance in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, and earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Chicago. That same year — 2002 — he also appeared in Gangs of New York and The Hours. His first major comedic role was in Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in 2006, and the pair reunited a few years later in 2008’s Step Brothers. Most interestingly, Reilly has been a frequent collaborator with avant-garde humorists Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim.
#7. Ernest Borgnine
I don’t know if it’s possible for an actor to be underrated even after scoring an Academy Award for Best Actor over the likes of Frank Sinatra, James Dean, James Cagney, and Spencer Tracy, but Borgnine did just that in 1955 with his role in Marty. Borgnine enjoyed a prolific dramatic career in the ensuing decades, but it was his role as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in the screwball Naval comedy McHale’s Navy (1962 – 66) that brought him his greatest adulation. Starting in 1999 Borgnine was reunited with McHale’s Navy co-star Tim Conway when the pair voiced the aquatic superhero team of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy on SpongeBob SquarePants. Borgnine continued in the role until his death in 2012.